Joe Biden's Gaffes Are Causing the White House a Communications Headache

President Joe Biden is causing a communications headache for White House staff some experts have said, following his recent comments about the U.S. defending Taiwan if it were to be attacked by China.

The president said on Monday that the U.S. had a "commitment" to defend Taiwan militarily—the third time he's made remarks that appear to signal a shift in the U.S. policy of "strategic ambiguity."

However, Biden also said that U.S. policy had not changed. That policy has seen the U.S. not publicly committing to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack but not saying the U.S. wouldn't intervene either.

China considers Taiwan to be part of its sovereign territory, while the U.S. pursues a One China policy that recognizes only one Chinese government—the one based in Beijing. Taiwan's official name is the Republic of China.

Joe Biden Attends a Meeting in Japan
U.S. President Joe Biden's recent comments about the U.S. defending Taiwan have raised some eyebrows. In this picture, Biden attends the Quad Leaders’ summit on May 24, 2022 in Tokyo. Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

This isn't the first time Biden's comments have proven controversial. On two previous occasions, the White House sought to clarify the president's statements about defending Taiwan and on March 26 Biden raised eyebrows when he said Russian President Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power."

The White House said later that day that Biden was "not discussing Putin's power in Russia or regime change."

Biden has been in national politics since becoming a U.S. senator in 1973 and has become well-known for his "gaffes." Political scientists who spoke to Newsweek suggested that Biden's comments could be causing problems for his communications team.

Biden's Mop Up Crew

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek that the president's gaffes must be keeping his staff busy.

"Joe Biden's 'mop up crew' in the White House press office is certainly earning their salary these days," Gift said. "His recent remarks on Taiwan are just the latest in a string of off-script comments that have left backers scrambling to rationalize his pivots away from official U.S. policy."

"From Biden's 'minor incursion' comments on Ukraine, to proposing the need for regime change in Russia, to his latest shift away from 'strategic ambiguity' on Taiwan, Biden's words leave a lot of observers wondering: Are these just gaffes?" Gift said.

"Is Biden so outside the loop that he's not even aware of what the formal White House position is? Or, more charitably, is there some underlying agenda that Biden is pushing by going out on a ledge, and then having his team walk-back his comments?" he said.

Trump's Comments

Former President Donald Trump is well-known for making controversial statements, both in person on on Twitter, but Biden's comments could also have major implications.

Gift noted that Biden also "has long had a reputation for putting his foot in his mouth, but his recent remarks don't speak to trivial issues."

"They carry high-stakes foreign policy implications bearing on some of the momentous challenges America faces," he said. "Democrats may want to play down Biden's comments or suggest—unconvincingly—that they're taken out of context. But if Trump made similar slips of the tongue, Democrats would be lambasting him for playing with fire on the world stage."

Paul Quirk, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, told Newsweek that Biden's gaffes "do not approach President Trump's frequent recklessness in both rhetoric and decisions" but Biden's most recent remarks may still be cause for concern.

Damaging Gaffes

Quirk said that Biden "has been notoriously 'gaffe-prone' for as long as the national media have taken notice of his remarks."

"Observers have wondered why, despite his generally good strategic judgment, he sometimes blurts out immediate reactions on matters that call for careful consideration. The habit was probably a minor factor in the failure of his 2008 presidential campaign," Quirk said.

"His two recent gaffes—calling for regime change in Russia and promising military defense of Taiwan against China—are the most damaging of his career," he went on.

Quirk said that there "are often good reasons to maintain ambiguity about American intentions."

"But the way to do it is with precisely calibrated ambiguous statements," he said.

"To make bold statements and then have to take them back makes both the country's enemies and its allies uncertain about its competence," Quirk added.

Walking a Tightrope

Mark Shanahan is an associate professor at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Reading University in the U.K. and co-editor of The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage. He took a different view of Biden's recent "gaffes."

"Biden is a foreign policy old-hand and knows exactly what he's doing," Shanahan said.

"These aren't gaffes, and nor is he introducing new policy. The U.S. walks a very thin tightrope when it comes to Taiwan, with every president since Truman keen to support the island as a bastion of democracy in East Asia while keeping the offense to mainland China just on the right side of acceptable," he said.

"In ramping up the message to Beijing that any move to invade the island will not be tolerated, Biden is using a technique much favored by another older president: Dwight D Eisenhower," Shanahan said.

"When Ike wanted his stance on an issue to remain deliberately opaque, he muddled his words or said something that just didn't sound quite clear," he added.

Republican Attacks

Nonetheless, the president's Republican opponents are likely to use any apparently muddled comments as lines of attack. Some Republicans have long questioned Biden's cognitive faculties.

"The gaffes play into the scurrilous portrayals of Biden as senile by conservative media and many Republican politicians," Quirk told Newsweek.

"Biden, at 79, has noticeably slowed down," he said. "But it is not clear that he is any more gaffe-prone than he always has been. Unfortunately, his communications staff and supporters cannot undo the harm by saying, 'You think that's senile? Look at what he said 20 years ago.'"

Shanahan noted that Eisenhower's political opponents "would cite his failing health and diminishing faculties" when he apparently misspoke.

"Much as the GOP is doing with Biden now," he said. "But Eisenhower was a far sharper tool than he was given credit for at the time and Biden likely is to. What better way to keep the Chinese guessing than to say something and have your communications team walk it back—and then say it again?"